Monday, December 8, 2014

Devotion Over Time Equals Meaning: Proust's Mysticism

From Giotto's St Francis cycle

The means whereby to identify dead forms is Mathematical Law. The means whereby to understand living forms is analogy. By these means we are able to distinguish polarity and periodicity in the world. 

-Oswald Spangler, The Decline of the West, Charles Francis Atkinson, trans.
[NB-- I started reading this after coming across a reference in KOK's second volume. Haven't finished yet, but found the quote interestingly close to Proust's formulation.  With Proust though, the formulation seems to apply more to personal history.  From what we see of capital H history in In Search of Lost Time, it is attended to and created by people caught in the pettiness of the former, so perhaps there is its fingerprint.]

Diverting Analogies, Pleasurable Loops

Walter Benjamin, in The Image of Proust, trims an outline of the author, from youth to recluse that when held against up against the life of say St. Francis or the life of Buddha, makes Proust's epiphany resemble a kind of holy conversion.  The story is there-- the wealthy young man, leading a life of luxury and excess, experiences a moment that recreates his entire being.  St Francis found his catalyst in a dream, followed by the public humiliation of his early return from the Crusades. He is then moved toward an ascetic life after encountering a leper. Buddha grew up in a palace where his every need was cared for. It isn't until he leaves his palace and encounters a sick old man and a funeral that he begins to seek austerity. Both of their conversions occurred over years and our accounts of them are given from the outside, mediated by dogma.  There is something to be said about the relative seclusion and opulence that attended their youths and the sensitivities that these childhoods bred and there may also be something superhuman about Proust.  The eloquence he displays in synthesizing his memories, in limning the ways in which the significances of a moment, of a belief, or of an idea yield over time, ripen and rot and grow anew, transcends his experience. It transcends the form of the novel and vibrates between novel, essay and memoir, using novelistic tropes as foils for deepening his reader's relationship to the progress of character. If there is within the Bildungsroman the remnants of the Medieval confession, its shape can be found here as well.

What benefit can Proust see in self-study outside of the ability to reach a synthesize, to find his life?  He makes the point that a life without review is basically un-lived, but if this is a question about capacity, it is a deeper question about Modernity. If Proust's epiphany can be taken as a kind of conversion, what quantity should we assign to this shape of mysticism?  If it is a reflex within the human organism, then perhaps we can use it as a bridge to understanding those earlier conversions. If it is separate, irrevocably apart and situated in the a-historical moment of life after the WWI, perhaps it is a new form.

I spent about nine or ten posts devoted to the concept of modern literary capacity (see the IPoStHL tags, if you're interested). The Modern mystic is a kind of oxymoron and, in Proust, the irony of his withdrawal seems convenient to his illness, to his heart-brokenness, and to his misanthropy-- not that any of those reasons would be excluded from the lives of earlier mystics, but in the context of The Search for Lost Time they form a brittle portrait of the author, a human rind that protects the fruit of the work and it seems we can't have one without the other, so the only remnant is devotion-- and I may have mentioned this earlier, but Proust's only true avowed devotions seem to be to time and music.

I recently attended a Bat Mitzvah that my father-in-law, who is not a rabbi, officiated.  The Bat Mitzvah was held in the basement of a home in New Jersey and he mentioned that traditionally synagogues are humble buildings, that the buildings don't matter. Jews worship within the cathedral of time. The phrase struck a chord.

In considering the progress of Charles Swann through In Search of Lost Time,  his assimilation and his rejection from the Faubourg St Germaine, plotted against the backdrop of the Dreyfus Affair, provides ample insight into the anti-semitism of the time. I learned recently that Proust's mother was Jewish but Proust himself was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic (a faith he later rejected). In considering the way in which Proust foregrounds Swann's struggle within society and studies it with such an obsessive eye, I felt as a reader almost assured that the narrator too would fall into the same traps as Swann and lose his standing. The novel instead uses this kind of false foreshadowing to highlight the great folly of youth, that in seeking our models we mistake their errors for our own and remain blind to the personal monstrosities we have been nursing all along. There is an added soupcon to consider Swann as well as a kind of model for the narrator-Proust's assimilation.

Within Jewish history there is the story of historical recursion, of repeated pogroms, depredations and struggle. Recursion is written into the Jewish story. But within rituals, the Bat Mitzvah for instance, we find the routinization of struggles and the joyful celebration of their conquest-- momentary as it may be.  Here we have an adequate parallel to Proust's temporal analogies, the celebratory moment in survival.  However, the kind of experiences that strike the sympathetic memory cannot be ceremonial. The analogous moment must sneak up on the intellect, it needs the element of surprise to strike the deepest chord, which is precisely where the routinization of faith fails.  It's not to say that the faithful are exempted from these kinds of experiences. The tragedy of the content of faith is that it is lost to repetition. It dies to provide the structure to the living part of ceremony. The spiritual crisis of Modern man may in part be due to the failure of religion to adapt out of cyclical and stale repetitions. In Proust's attention to phenomena we may find a temporary antidote.  To see it from a humanist perspective, Proust's --or any -- purported mysticism is interesting only in that it reveals an order apart from that of the mundane senses.  Its reward may be a constant inward search for similitude that cracks out the endorphins, that and a kind of kinship born across the several selves we leave in time. Its price is solitude.  Its corruption is nostalgia.

For another time: song structures and recurrence, Girl Talk and the memory of music, Nick at Night, the memory content of memes, Beckett and forgetting...

The Ear

He cannot move the furniture
through that small aperture, yet
expects it must serve
used with reserve,

To wit, the company that comes
runs to be first in,
arranges what it can
within the man,

who (poor fool) bulges
with secrets he never divulges.

-Robert Creeley

E-Z Listening: Schubert Six Moments Musicaux No. 3

Takashi Murakami Buddha at Versailles. Image by Christophe Ena

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